Winifred Relph (B.1912): Life and Labour

Winifred started work as a domestic servant at the age of 14 and, consequently, labour is a central aspect of ‘Through Rough Ways’. Winifred recalls, ‘so in March 1926 my childhood ended and I went out into the world to earn my own living’ (46). Although this was a huge transition in Winifred’s life, she felt no sadness that her childhood ended in her early teens. For Winifred, securing a full time, well paid position so quickly after finishing school, was something to be extremely proud of. She recalls: ‘I felt very grand as I stepped into the car, I waved goodbye to mother and hoped the neighbours were watching to see my royal departure’ (48). The words ‘grand’ and ‘royal’ emphasise how Winifred felt privileged to have the opportunity to leave her childhood village and begin work.

Image of domestic servant early 20th century
Image of domestic servant early 20th century

Winifred was employed by an extremely wealthy family to be a domestic servant: ‘my first impression was one of vastness, everything was so much larger than our small cottage at home’ (61). This may have been one of the first moments that Winifred recognised that she was from the lower classes and that her family home was actually quite small. Her sense of class identity heightened as she came into contact with her employer’s daughter: Little Miss. Ruth took a delight in tormenting me when she found out I would not tell her mother, she made fun of me and my clothes and frequently called me a little gutter child. She had a lovely Red Setter dog called Moses, “Even Moses is more important than you are,” she would say with deadly emphasis, “You are lower than he is”’ (61). Winifred was enormously hurt and shocked by Ruth’s words as she had never been exposed to such cruelty. Consequently, Winifred had little authority over Ruth and the tormenting and bullying only increased.

Winifred’s employers insisted that she should ‘always use the back stairs and remember her place’ (54) and, consequently, she developed a severe sense of inferiority and recalls feeling that she was ‘the lowest thing that ever breathed’ (54). Lethbridge suggests: ‘The relationship between the server and the served became the often represented demarcation of below stairs and above’ (2013, 5). Winifred felt this segregation in the household very strongly and, unfortunately, her male employee took advantage of her vulnerability and lack of self-worth.

Cartoon of domestic servant
Cartoon of domestic servant

Winifred endured a sustained period of sexual harassment in the workplace. She writes: ‘the old rascal tried it on whenever he got the chance. I had youth in my favour and as he grabbed me I’d give him a hard push to escape. He never said a word and I was too scared to tell anyone’ (75). This upsetting account highlights how her employer brutally took advantage of Winifred’s position of weakness. Lethbridge highlights ‘the idea of the perfect servant – silent, obsequious, loyal – is a central component of England’s recent past’ (2013, 4). Winifred accepted this power balance and, as she was only a ‘grubby kitchen maid’ (53), she felt it would be inappropriate to tell anyone of her suffering and, therefore, tolerated his behaviour for several years. Although Winifred remained silent, she recalls feeling a great sense of injustice and anger towards her attacker and hoped that, in her later life, she could do something to challenge gender and class hierarchical structures.

Advertisement for nursing during WWII
Advertisement for nursing during WWII

At the age of 21, Winifred felt that she would be more suited and mentally stimulated by a career in nursing and, therefore, became a trainee nurse in Selly Oak, Birmingham. She writes: ‘although the hours were long and the work hard I enjoyed it more than anything I had ever done. I was learning something new every day and when I had the chance to help with a dressing or to make someone comfortable I felt pleased and happy’ (97). Winifred had a passion for education and thoroughly enjoyed expanding her knowledge on a daily basis. She flourished from helping others and being in a busy social environment but, more importantly, this was her chance to finally fulfil her academic potential and escape the repressive and poisonous atmosphere of her previous job.


Works Cited: 

Holloway, Gerry. Women and Work in Britain since 1840. (London: Routledge, 2007)

Lethbridge, Lucy. Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-Century Britain. (London: A&C Black, 2013)

Relph, Winifred, in Burnett, John, David Vincent, David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, 3 vols (Brighton: Harvester, 1987) 2:657

2:657 Relph, Winifred, ‘Through Rough Ways’, TS, pp. 120 (c. 63,000 words). Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, Brunel University Library

Images Cited: 

‘Image of Advertisement for nursing during WWII’ from accessed: 26/11/15

Image of ‘Cartoon of Domestic Servant 1900s’ from BBC schools 20/01/14. Accessed: 27/10/16

Image of ‘Domestic Servant 1920s’. Accessed: 12/10/15. 16/01/10



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